“Probably the best Modern house in the world” is how this incredible property was described in an article in The Sunday Times by the architecture critic Hugh Pearman. Designed in 1962 by Jorn Utzon, best known for his world-famous design of the Sydney Opera House, it is understandably one of the most admired residences of our age.
The six-bedroom house is located on a sought-after residential road in the popular Hertfordshire town of Harpenden. Internally it extends to almost 4,500 sq ft and enjoys extensive, secluded gardens.
It was originally designed by Utzon for his friend and fellow Dane, Povl Ahm, who was chairman of Arup, the celebrated firm of engineers. It was sympathetically extended in 1972 by Ulrick Plesner, an architect at Arup, and has also had a further discreet extension completed as part of an extensive and exacting refurbishment scheme carried out by the highly respected 800 Group. The attention to detail and quality of finished employed is of an exceptional standard.
The house is entered via a car port into an entrance hall. From here steps lead up to a spectacular living room. With full length, floor to ceiling glass overlooking the gardens and exquisite concrete and timber detailing, this is surely one of the finest living rooms of any 20th century house anywhere in the country (or possibly, as Pearman would argue, the world). The living room is divided from the dining area by a minimal set of shallow steps. An enclosed kitchen overlooks the dining area. Also on this floor are four bedrooms, a bathroom, shower room and utility room.
Beyond the entrance hall on the ground floor is a library leading to further accommodation wing. This incorporates a fifth bedroom and an impressive master bedroom suite. The latter includes a large dressing room with bespoke wardrobes, a bathroom, sauna and the bedroom itself with double doors out onto the garden.
There is also an integral garage at the property as well as ample space for parking cars on the driveway. The gardens are extensive, forming an L-shape running to the side and rear of the house. The current owners have constructed a skateboarding facility and tree house at the far end, out of sight of the main house.
Historic England, who have described this as “a distinguished and beautifully detailed Modern house” granted it listed status (Grade II) in 1998. For more about the history of the house click here.
West Common Way is a peaceful and leafy residential road made up mainly of large, detached houses. It is on the outskirts of Harpenden, an attractive and affluent town that offers a thriving high street, proximity to beautiful countryside and excellent transport links. Trains run from Harpenden station to London Kings Cross Thameslink in approximately 25 minutes, and the M1, A1M and M25 are all within a 5 to 20 minute drive. Luton airport is a short drive away. Harpenden is also renowned for its large areas of park and common. Well-regarded schools in the area include Aldwickbury, Beechwood, St. Albans High School for Girls, St. Albans Boys School, Haileybury and Haberdashers Askes.
Please note that all areas, measurements and distances given in these particulars are approximate and rounded. The text, photographs and floor plans are for general guidance only. The Modern House has not tested any services, appliances or specific fittings — prospective purchasers are advised to inspect the property themselves. All fixtures, fittings and furniture not specifically itemised within these particulars are deemed removable by the vendor.
In the late 1950s, the young Dane Povl Ahm (1926 – 2005) was working in London for the great Anglo-Danish civil engineer Ove Arup when he was assigned to assist on Jørn Utzon’s ground-breaking project for a new Opera House in Sydney, Australia.
Whilst working with Utzon, Ahm acquired a plot of land in Harpenden. Utzon drew up a set of conceptual drawings for the plot, which Ahm developed into the house that stands today. Translating the ideas of some of the world’s greatest Modern architects was something that Ahm obviously had a talent for as he also assisted Basil Spence (at Coventry Cathedral) and Arne Jacobsen (at St Catherine’s College, Oxford). By ensuring the original architect’s concept was in no way diluted, but was still structurally sound, Ahm became much admired by both engineers and architects.
The house on West Common Way was a building that Ahm was passionate about, and he cut no corners in its construction. The build took two years, between 1961 and 1962, to complete, and the finished article is a celebration of the beauty of engineering. Exposed pre-cast solid concrete beams run throughout the house, their strong lines being offset by the gentler pattern of pale Aylesbury brick. Floor-to-ceiling glass allows light to flood into the house, illuminating the textures of this lovingly constructed building. The roof has copper edging. English Heritage’s description of the house as “distinguished and beautifully-detailed” is an entirely fitting tribute.
The concept for the flow of space within the house has been impressively realised. Visitors are drawn into the vast living room by way of a long, low porch leading into a spacious entrance hall. Wide and shallow steps take you upstairs into the living room and then on to the dining area and kitchen. English Heritage commented on this “sense of progression”, calling it “an important feature” of the house, as well as “the consistency of finish, with Swedish Höganäs white tiles throughout the house and extending onto the terrace beyond”. The extension of the tiled floor from the interior to the exterior, as well as the extensive glass giving views of the garden, helps to achieve the aim (so desired by many Modernist architects) of ‘bringing the outside in’.
When Ahm’s family grew, he knew he needed to extend the house and so he turned to Ulrik Plesner (b. 1930), also a Danish architect who worked at Arup in the late 1960s. In collaboration with Christopher Beaver Associates, Plesner created a similar, single-storey structure that is entirely sympathetic. With Ahm keeping his exacting eye on the project, it took three years to complete.
Throughout his life, Ahm was regularly awarded for his work and was given a C.B.E. (as well as the Danish equivalent). The prize of which he was most proud, however, was the prestigious gold medal given by the Institute of Civil Engineers.
In his celebrated series ‘The Buildings of England’, Nikolaus Pevsner refers to the house as an “interesting modern house… [that] makes no concessions to the outsider nor to the genteel facadism of its neighbours. All that one sees from the road is a yawning carport with a rhythm of projecting concreate beam-ends above, and a tall blank yellow brick wall on the right”.